Editor’s note: This article, first published in print during April-1995, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
Fundraising consultant Andy Robinson has pulled a lot of what he calls “common sense” ideas together here as a useful reminder and helpful perspective on some basic fundraising tenets.
The love of money says the Bible is the root of all evil. After fifteen years working with a social change organization. I suspect that the lack of money creates just as money problems. Many of my colleagues, clients, and students sing the same song: ”If we only had $______” (go ahead, fill in the amount). “We could save the word.”
Unfortunately, our frustrations about money or the lack of it tend to blind us in a couple of ways. First of all, we forget our other organizational assets, things that have no relation to the bank balance. Second, we get obsessive about the subject which limits our capacity for good hard-headed planning.
So before you begin raising money, step back, take a breath and consider the following issues.
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- Money is just a tool. It’s important only because of what it can buy your organization. There are always other tools available. What you lack in money: you may be able to make up for with the skills, talents, enthusiasm and track record of your members and staff. Money in and of itself has no value.
- Do you really need the money? In other words are there ways to get what you need? Consider in-kind donations, barter, free advertising etc. For example, used office equipment is often donated by larger companies (in exchange for a tax write-off) or governments’ agencies. Many professionals— lawyers, accountants, graphics artists, entertainers – will contribute their services or work for a reduced fee if you know how to ask. For example, you may be able to get printing, or a hall for a meeting, in exchange for an ad in your next event program. As a rule, the less cash you need the better off you’ll be. It’s always easier to get in-kind contributions.
- Money is not a dirty word. To paraphrase Joan Flanagan, author of the Grassroots Fundraising Book, money is like sex: everyone thinks about it, but most people are uncomfortable talking about it. This is especially true when it comes time to ask for donations. Remember, people contribute because they want to; they believe what your organization does is worthwhile. Many consider it a privilege to donate but you have to ask first.
- Fundraising is selling. Another dirty word rears its dirty head. ”Selling” conjures up images of car sellers and Madison Avenue hype. What I’m suggesting is a systematic way of analyzing your situation and playing to your strengths.
Who is your market, your audience? Why do they care about your organization/issue/service/product? How can you expand your market? Is it possible or necessary or even ethical for you to adopt your product (organization) to reach a larger market?
Forgive the advertising lingo, but if we want professional results, we need to borrow a page from the professionals. To work best, your fundraising must be systematic.
- Fundraising is organizing. Ideally, in the process of raising funds, you’ll also be building your organization, developing leadership, increasing community awareness of what you do etc. The best fundraising strategies succeed at both bringing in the bucks and furthering your program goals.
- Fundraising is hard work. Never underestimate the time and energy required. I have yet to find an “easy” way to raise money. On the other hand, it should not be complete drudgery, or no one will help. Fundraising should also be fun.
You still need cash, right? In selecting potential fundraising strategies, keep the following concerns in mind:
- The Work-to-Profit Ratio. A quick $200 house meeting might be worth a lot more in the long run than a time-consuming auction that nets $1.000. Choose projects that are work-intensive only if you have lots of dependable workers. Assume from the beginning that the fundraising will take twice as much work as you estimate. If it looks like too much trouble, choose another project.
- Build fundraising into your program. While raising money, you also want to educate people about your group and your issue. Even better, you want to get them involved.
For example, an organization advocating for clean water could sponsor a trash-a-thon, where volunteers would solicit “pledges by the pound” for garbage they collect along the local river bank or lack shore. This would create three opportunities at once: it would raise funds, give people a direct and visceral experience of how pollution affects their water supply, and gather media attention for the organization and the issue (The more disgusting the trash, the better the news coverage). On the other hand, an organization lobbying for law-and-order issues would not want to raise money by robbing a bank.
- Be creative. The old standbys are fine, but don’t be afraid to invent something new. There’s nothing wrong with a gimmick if it works.
- Give yourself plenty of lead time. Some major fundraising events or strategies can take a year or more to organize. If you need money now, pick a modest project and do it well. Stay within your management capabilities and your budget.
- Minimize expenses. Get donations of everything: materials, printing, services, entertainment, etc. If you can’t get the stuff donated, try to get it at cost. Improvise what you can’t afford. Remember, net income equals receipts minus expenses, so keep your expenses down.
- Promote your activities. This is crucial for any kind of benefit event. If nobody knows what you are doing, nobody will come. Press releases, public service announcements, flyers and targeted mailings are all inexpensive ways to get the word out. Be wary about paid advertising; for many events, it’s not cost-efficient.
- Set specific goals. Set goals for net income, response rate, audience size, number of volunteers participating etc. Without specific goals, you’ll have no way to monitor your progress as you organize the project. Most important, do the math first. Without numbers, your planning is reduced to guesswork and you will likely lose money instead of raising it.
- Assume success but plan for the worst. Something will go wrong, Adapt. Be quick on your feet. Trouble-shoot. Solve the problem first, and then try to figure out how you can prevent it from happening again in the future.
Most of this is common sense, but our fear and frustrations about fundraising can paralyze us or cause us to do crazy things. If you take the time to analyze, evaluate, and plan, you’ll raise more money, make more friends for the organization, and feel better about efforts, when in doubt think.